On April 24, teachers, students, artists and non-profit leaders gathered in a downtown New York theater to celebrate the power of documentary films to inspire action. The event, Moving Pictures: How Can Film Move Students to Take Action? served as the culmination of the 2018 Speak Truth to Power (STTP) Video Contest, this year, calling on students to create short films that connected a human rights defender of their choice to the work of Robert F. Kennedy.
This year, Mwï Epalle and Ming-Wei Fasquelle of the International School of Los Angeles received the Grand Prize for their video, “My Neighbor, Gary.” The short film profiles activist Gary Tyler who now works to reform the criminal justice system after being wrongly accused and convicted of a crime he did not commit. As we honored these students’ outstanding work, we were humbled to have Gary Tyler in attendance, reminding everyone in the audience that this event was not only an opportunity to celebrate our winners, but also one to shine a light on the problems that continue to plague us as a society; to applaud the people who are working to make a difference; and to inspire young people to seek out and create their own opportunities to effect change.
The hour-long event opened with remarks from David Earls, Managing Director of the Tribeca Film Institute, in which he discussed the Institute’s commitment to amplifying female and minority filmmakers in the United States, a mission that overlaps with the goals of STTP.
John Heffernan, Executive Director of STTP, then introduced both the Grand Prize winning video and the First Place video in the high school category, “Tarana Burke, #MeToo,” created by Smithtown High School students, Marie Carpenter and Brooke Vitulli. The premieres were followed by a presentation of awards to the Grand Prize Winners, as well as a special acknowledgement of Gary Tyler.
To conclude, Liann Kaye (Global Citizen), Benjamin Higgins (Educator) and Patrick McGarry (2016 STTP Video Contest Winner) spoke about the relationship between filmmaking and advocacy in a panel discussion that helped the audience to place what that they had witnessed and heard into a larger context. At the start of the conversation, moderator John Heffernan asked the panelists to share their opinions on why film can be such an effective tool to create change, to which all three responded by highlighting film’s ability to maximize reach and impact. Acknowledging this important aspect of film, Kaye also noted that the form provides an opportunity for its creators “to put [themselves] in the shoes of another person,” allowing for a sense of empathy that only makes one’s dedication to a cause stronger.
Heffernan then followed up with questions on how to encourage those who do not identify as filmmakers to use the medium as a tool for activism and how to inspire concrete action after sharing a social justice documentary. In response, McGarry highlighted the importance of opportunities such as the Video Contest in reaching different groups of people and both Higgins and Kaye emphasized that encouraging people to feature stories personal to them is a great way to lower the barrier to entry. Kaye continued on to stress that access to items such as camera phones will continue to inspire deeper engagement with the different issues in communities around the world.
On the topic of mobilization, Kaye highlighted that it’s up to the team of filmmakers to attach asks to their films that will provide their audience with more structured ways to make a difference.
As the conversation came to a close, it became clear that those in the audience were moved and inspired by what they had heard, posing thoughtful questions about working with education systems to include film in curricula, creating thoughtful, critical and robust messaging in documentaries, and engaging with film distributors to reach the maximum number of people.
With a final round of applause and acknowledgement of the winners, the lights returned to their normal brilliance, officially ending the event. Yet, the theater continued to buzz with the sound of people connecting and discussing what they had seen and learned; of collaboration in hopes of creating change; of many ripples of hope making waves in this New York City community.